Refresher Course

You can trace a nation's genealogy through its postage stamps

By Janet Klug

Collecting stamps from all over the world seems to be a lost art. Fewer of us tackle the challenge of working on a collection that will never be complete, but those of us who do attempt it experience the joy of delving into global history and geography.

Figure 1. Syria, Scott 1614, National Day stamp issued in 2007.
Figure 2. Syria French Mandate, Scott 282, President Taj Eddin Hassani stamp issued in 1942.
Figure 3. Hatay, Scott 12, map of Hatay stamp issued in 1939.
Figure 4. Sandjak of Alexandrette, Scott 3, a 1938 overprint on a 50-centime Syrian stamp.
Figure 5. Turkey Scott 823 is overprinted to mark annexation of Hatay issued in 1939.
Figure 6. Saudi Arabia/Hejaz, Scott L1, stamp designed by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) issued in 1916.
Figure 7. Ottoman Empire (Turkey) Scott 1, the Ottoman Empire's first postage stamp issued 1863.

There are many ways to collect the world without trying to collect every stamp every country has issued.

Stamps are symbols of nationhood. Wars, treaties, mergers, governmental changes, civil demands and other factors may change the borders and names of countries.

When a country changes in a profound way it is likely that its currency, postage stamps and other accountable papers will change as well.

These changes, reflected in postage stamps, give collectors an opportunity to build collections that show the genealogy of countries.

How would you construct the genealogy of a country using stamps?

The process is not much different than researching the genealogy of a family. You begin with the current generation and work backwards from there.

Figure 1 shows a stamp from Syria issued in 2007 for National Day (Scott 1614).

National Day seems like a good place to begin a study of Syria's genealogy.

Syria's official name today is Syrian Arab Republic. It has been an independent nation since April 1946, which accounts for the annual National Day postage stamps.

That takes care of the current generation, so now we look farther back in the Scott Standard Postage Stamp Catalogue to see what happened prior to 1946.

There is a big clue on the Syrian stamps: the word Republique, which is French for republic.

Figure 2 shows a Syrian stamp issued in 1942 inscribed "Republique Syrienne" and depicting President Taj Eddin Hassani (Scott 282).

So why did the Middle Eastern nation of Syria have stamps with French words printed on them?

An encyclopedia provides the necessary information.

After World War I, the League of Nations made Syria a French mandate. The mandate placed upon France was to create and control the administration of the country to prepare it for self-government.

The French Mandate was not without its problems and civil unrest. Revolts followed demonstrations. In 1936 Turkey claimed a part of Syria known as Alexandretta because of the large Turkish population there. In 1937 that area was granted autonomy and given the name Hatay.

So now the genealogy gets a little more complicated and we have to consult the Scott standard catalog again to learn if there were stamps for Hatay, an autonomous part of Syria, or maybe Turkey, or maybe both.

Figure 3 pictures a stamp issued in 1939 for Hatay. The stamp design shows a map of its location (Scott 12).

Maps on stamps are brilliantly helpful when researching a country's genealogy.

The little autonomous region of Hatay had a short life. In 1939 it was returned to Turkey as a result of a Turkish-French agreement.

But wait – Hatay was formerly Alexandretta, so we need to check to see if there were stamps issued from Alexandretta.

The stamp shown in Figure 4 is a genealogical marker for that period of Hatay-now-Turkey, illustrating a "Sandjak d'Alexandrette" overprint on a Syrian 50-centime stamp (Alexandretta Scott 3). These stamps were used from April 1938 until the Hatay stamps were issued in 1939.

That blip in the genealogy ends with Alexandretta/Hatay becoming part of Turkey.

Another foray into the Scott catalog produces the stamp pictured in Figure 5, one of six Turkish stamps surcharged and overprinted in 1939 to mark the annexation of Hatay by Turkey (Turkey Scott 823).

You can almost sense how this genealogical study is likely to end.

That concludes the French Mandate period of Syria. Preceding that was World War I, when large sections of the Middle East were battlefields, military bases or occupied areas.

Syria became an Ottoman Empire military base in 1914. The Ottoman army attacked the British-held Suez Canal. By late 1917 British General Allenby and an alliance of Middle Eastern forces regained control of Damascus.

That means part of the philatelic genealogy of Syria would include World War I British and Middle Eastern military mail, possibly sent by such notables as General Allenby and Lawrence of Arabia.

It hardly gets more romantic than that.

Lacking the appropriate military postal history, a good substitution would be a stamp designed by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia): shown in Figure 6 is Saudi Arabia/Hejaz Scott L1, issued in 1916.

But there is still more to the genealogy of Syria.

To show that in stamps, we can go back as far as the very first stamp from the Ottoman Empire: shown in Figure 7 is Turkey Scott 1, issued in 1863.

To go back even further, you would need to acquire ancient messages that would have to go all the way back to the Hellenistic and Roman Empires.

There are many countries that could be documented by a similarly fascinating stamp-related genealogy.

Imagine, for example, Germany with its many states, occupations, offices abroad, East and West divisions, unification, zones and so on.

It could be quite an undertaking, and yet it would be an eminently doable project.

The end result would be a unique collection bound to teach you more about history and geography than you knew before.

Give it a try and see for yourself.